They say cruise ships try to be all things to all people, but that's not really true. In fact, most cruise ships cater primarily to the mainstream majority, following current trends so closely they sometimes trip over the trends' heels. That's fine as far as it goes -- I mean, why not have an onboard version of American Idol, ban trans-fats from the galley, and run a skull-and-crossbones up the mast every time a new Pirates of the Caribbean movie comes out? -- but it's hardly innovative.
So I got to thinking: What if I were asked to come up with some improvements to the standard cruise template? What would I add to make the cruise experience just a little snazzier, hipper, and more universal? By definition, the list I came up with reflects my own personal impulses, but that's what Americans want in a leader, isn't it? The ability to come up with an idea and act on it, without looking at the poll numbers first? Sure they do.
So here, then, are my suggestions to the cruise lines regarding how they could please me just a little more. Some of them might not be economically viable, but that's what fantasy-league cruise planning is all about. A few, though, could actually make the cruise lines some money -- and if they do, I want my royalties.
1. Juice Bars
Cruise ships and bars go together like Abbott and Costello, and lately a couple lines (Celebrity with its Spa Cafes and Costa with its specialty "wellness" restaurants on Concordia and Serena) have dipped their toes into health food, so why not combine the two? A tall glass of carrot-apple juice would do wonders for a passenger's energy level, either before a long day in port or after a long night at the ship's more traditional bars. Add a shot of wheatgrass juice and you've got all the vitamins you need to get through that zipline excursion.
For the cruise lines, running a fully functional juice bar would mean stocking several extra tons of fresh fruit and produce before and during the cruise, but the per-glass price of a good juice should be able to offset additional expenses. Classes in juicing techniques, nutrition and recipes could help round out the onboard enrichment program, and the line could even sell its preferred juicing machines to passengers who get hooked. And just think of the PR value: "Cruise Line Promotes Good Health and Nutrition at New Onboard Bar." Priceless.
2. Better Beer
Having recently moved to the Pacific Northwest, the spiritual home of the American craft-brew movement, I've become even more aware than usual of how deficient most cruise ship bars are when it comes to really fine beer and ale. But why does that have to be? The fact that Corona and Heineken -- two middle-of-the-road beers that are nevertheless classed as "imports" -- are the top sellers aboard cruise ships tells us that people on vacation want to try "the good stuff." So why not give them the really good stuff.
To be fair, a few cruise ships do: NCL's Jewel, Pearl and Price of Hawai'i all have an excellent beer bar with a menu of 46 brews. But even there, they don't go far enough. Beyond stocking some really extraordinary beers and ales in one bar, why don't ships make more of an effort to stock knockout brews from the regions in which they're sailing? Why not offer beer-tasting events like they do wine-tasting events, charging passengers a nominal fee to sample half a dozen local favorites? Why not bring aboard local brewmasters to lead the tastings, discuss the brewer's art and lead brewery tours on shore? On cruises of longer than two weeks, passengers could even sign up for beer-making workshops, learning the basics of brewing and fermenting their own brew, which could be ready for a party at cruise's end. Why not go home with a skill that really pays, and not just a few extra pounds of beer weight?
3. Entertainment from the Sailing Region/Culture
Vegas-style revues are all well and good, but it's not like your ship is sailing in Nevada, right? That's why I'm an advocate of regional entertainment, bringing aboard performers whose art really says something about the place you're visiting. To avoid language problems the cruise lines could focus on employing musicians, dancers, and other physical performers. Imagine: Instead of moldy old Andrew Lloyd Webber chestnuts, your next Baltic cruise might feature Scandinavian hardanger fiddle players, Russian folk dancers, and representatives of Eastern Europe's venerable circus traditions. Instead of yet another cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry," your next Alaska cruise might feature a Tlingit drum troupe or Athabascan storyteller. Kudos to NCL for bringing some Polynesian music and dance aboard for its Hawaii sailings, and to Celebrity for bringing European music aboard for its summer Mediterranean and Baltic sailings, but they're very much the exception rather than the rule.
4. Regional Goods in the Gift Shop
On a related note, why not stock really worthwhile regional crafts, art, jewelry, and books in one of the ship's gift shops. In a world that's becoming increasingly homogenized by multinational corporations, it would help give passengers the sense that they're really traveling, and be a nice window out of the bubble that cruise ships can become.
5. Small-Scale Shore Excursions to Meet the Locals
In ten years of writing about cruises, three of the best shore excursions I've ever taken weren't much fancier than small-town community events, but that's what made them special. In Kodiak, Alaska, me and a fifteen other passengers trekked to the Monk's Rock Coffee Shop for a special performance by the Kodiak Russian Balalaika Players, an amateur group that keeps the island's Russian traditions alive. In Haines, Alaska, an even smaller group visited the home of two local artists to do a little print-making, have some tea, and learn about day-to-day life in Southeast Alaska. In Provideniya, Siberia, every passenger on my small ship (Cruise West's Spirit of Oceanus) was invited to the city's Palace of Culture, where we were greeted by town officials and treated to a presentation by local youth, mixing ballet, folk dance, and traditional Eskimo and Russian songs.
What all those had in common was connection: the sense that I was getting to know how people live in a corner of the world very different from my own. All three of those excursions were offered by small-ship cruise lines, but there's no reason even the largest ships couldn't offer something similar.
6. Self-Selected Enrichment Programs
Many ships, especially those offering longer itineraries, offer enrichment lectures and demonstrations to passengers, particularly during days at sea. Though some few passengers might pick a sailing that they know will be featuring a certain noted chef or celebrity speaker, most don't have a clue who will be featured on board until they read it in their daily program. But what if they could choose the speakers themselves?
It could work like this: Any passenger booked a certain number of months in advance (say, six) would get an e-mail from the cruise line asking them to go to the line's website, read a description of various lecture themes, and vote on the ones that interest them the most. The line could then sign up guest lecturers who are experts on the themes in which the largest number of passengers expressed an interest.
7. Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits
Women are from Venus; men are from Mars. Women go to beauty salons; men go to barber shops. At salons, women can get haircuts and manicures and pedicures and all sorts of cures. Men are more limited: We can get haircuts, and we can get shaves.
So picture this for your next cruise: You wake up every morning, have a leisurely breakfast, then wander down to the barber shop. You have an appointment. One of the barbers, a nice fella with a handlebar mustache and sleeve garters, waves you to your chair. On the wall behind the barber are shelves, and on the shelves are dozens of shaving mugs. One has your name on it. The barber grabs a pair of tongs, reaches into the silver steamer, and extracts a piping hot towel, which he applies to your face. After the towel comes the lather, whipped up in the bowl with your name on it and applied with a beautiful badger-bristle brush. Then the shave itself -- done not with some wimpy plastic three-bladed horror but with a classic straight razor, its edge honed to perfection. Afterwards, an application of bay rum aftershave and you're on your way, marveling not only at the most perfect shave you've ever had, but at how relaxing and luxurious it all was. You're already looking forward to the next morning, and wondering why you don't have this done more often.
At the end of the week, you go home with that personalized shaving bowl, the badger brush, and a straight razor of your own -- like your grandfather or great-grandfather used to use.
It's the kind of gimmick I'd fall for in a minute, and I'll bet a lot of other guys would as well. Caveats: Because of shore excursions and other scheduling matters, you probably wouldn't be able to get your shave first thing every day. Also, the cruise lines' insurers would probably have conniptions over barbers using straight razors on a moving ship. But I can dream, can't I?
8. Coastal Cruises
Why is it that cruise ships hardly ever visit American cities? I mean, we have two long coasts brimming with lovely towns, plus the while Gulf coast. Is there a law that says cruise ships have to leave the country as soon as you get aboard?
Actually, there is: The Passenger Vessel Services Act, which became U.S. law in 1886, forbids passenger ships from operating itineraries entirely within U.S. waters (for instance, sailing from New York to Miami with stops in Baltimore and Charleston) unless those ships are built in the United States, owned by a U.S. entity, registered and flagged in the U.S. (and thus taxed in the U.S.), and manned by a U.S. crew. The law was originally designed to protect U.S. shipping interests from foreign competition, but in modern times -- with U.S. cruise lines commonly building, flagging, and manning their vessels overseas -- its effect has been that vessels sailing to U.S. ports have had to visit a foreign port too as part of their itineraries. That explains all the cruises that go to Nassau on the east coast and Ensenada and Victoria, B.C. on the west.
But imagine, if you will, that the law were rescinded. Cruises could sail all around New England at the height of fall leaf season, visiting Boston, Newport, Bar Harbor and Martha's Vineyard. In the south, ships could sail from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale and visit Key West, New Orleans and Houston. Talk about an economical way of seeing America. Instead of paying a few hundred dollars a night for a room at a nice city hotel, you could pay less than a thousand and have your accommodations and meals for a whole week.
Ahh, but maybe that's why the law stays in place.
9. Real Relaxation
It's no secret that Americans are more stressed out than ever before. Blame it on cell phones, 24-hour news cycles, Al Qaeda, George Bush, the housing market, or whatever you like. Fact is, we're tweaked.
While a cruise ship would seem to be the ideal place to get away from our stressors, cruise lines over the past few years seem intent on bringing them right aboard with you. They've added technology to allow cell phone use on ships, piped news into our cabin TVs, added WiFi technology so you can check your e-mail more easily, added video games to keep your kids hyped up ...it's enough to make you want to stay home.
What we need is some enforced relaxation. How about a total relaxation ship, with no TVs, no telephones, no thumping dance music, no hyperactive cruise director, and an activities program designed to put you into a perfect state of blissful retreat? At the very least, why can't ships incorporate some of those suggestions into their normal product? Kudos to Princess and Oceania Cruises for trying: In 2006, both introduced ships with dedicated adult relaxation areas where the vibe is all bliss, all the time.
At Princess, it's The Sanctuary aboard Crown Princess, a perfect onboard chill-out space dotted with lounge chairs, trees, and private cabanas under a large shade-giving canopy. Light meals, massages, and beverages are available, and a staff of "serenity stewards" is tasked with making sure things stay quiet. At Oceania, it's The Patio, a shaded outdoor lounge located in the aft port corner of the pool deck, furnished with thickly cushioned sofas, chairs, and day beds. For even more privacy, passengers can rent one of eight private cabanas on Deck 11, each with privacy partitions and white drapes that can be drawn or left open, plus great sea views, a retractable shade roof, a plush day bed built for two, and the services of a dedicated attendant who provides food and beverage service, chilled towels, and water spritzes. Guests can even arrange to get massages and other spa treatments in their cabana.
We need more of that. Other cruise lines, take heed.
On the activities front, I suggest meditation classes. Nothing soothes the savage beast like an hour of sitting motionless, your mind blank of all worries, contemplating emptiness. Best part for the cruise lines? They can charge for it, and there are no accessories to worry about keeping in stock. One vanload of gomden cushions and they're good to go. Ommmm ...
10. Green Technologies
Here's another where some cruise lines have already jumped into the game. Just this week, Holland America has installed emissions-reducing technology on Zaandam, and Princess is working with cities to power ships with clean electricity when they're in port. Other cruise lines are working on similar initiatives, but how much farther will they be able to go with a little imagination? Think hull paint that collects solar energy to help power the ship. Or ships with wind turbines to take advantage of all those lovely sea breezes. (Or, for that matter, ships that use sails for propulsion -- an old technology that we might like to revisit.) Ships could be designed so that natural light filters through to many of the public rooms, reducing the need for artificial illumination.
The sky's the limit on how far engineers can go in creating a ship that leaves a lighter environmental footprint. The sky and the Safety of Life at Sea regulations, that is.
Now it's Your Turn
OK, I've blabbed on about my wish list for new ships, but what are yours? Let us know in a posting to our cruise message board, and let's see if we can't influence the cruise ships of the future.